Senators to Gulf of Mexico Restoration Body: Get on With it!

Oiled marsh along the Louisiana coastline. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness, State of Louisiana.
The pace of restoring the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the BP oil spill has been slower than anyone would like. Last week the Senate Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing to revisit the RESTORE Act two years since it became law , and ask what progress the RESTORE Council has made since releasing an initial comprehensive restoration plan last August.

Gulf Senators were clear – they expect the Council to adhere to the law to allocate funds across the Gulf coast region for ecosystem restoration with the same sense of urgency and collaboration that lawmakers had in drafting the legislation after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.  Senators Nelson, Rubio, Landrieu, Boxer, Vitter, and Wicker urged the Council to use available funds to restore the Gulf coast ecosystem and economy, citing that wetlands, coastal waters, dolphins, and fish continue to suffer from the impacts of BP oil and dispersants. The committee’s top message to the Council – “let’s get moving!”

Finally, a Project Selection Process… Or is it?

One critical missing piece of the RESTORE puzzle has been the development of a Funded Priorities List (FPL) of restoration initiatives for the Council-selected restoration component, otherwise known as “Pot 2”.  The FPL was supposed to have accompanied the Council’s Initial Comprehensive Plan, which was released a year ago this month. The RESTORE Council has recently released an indication of how projects will be selected and vetted by its members.

Approval of an FPL requires the supportive vote of at least three State Council members and the Federal Chair, in this case Department of Commerce. But it seems the Council will also consider outside voices. The Council has released a framework by which projects will be evaluated, and focus areas for the first project submission: habitat and water quality. In addition, projects that are foundational in nature, provide benefit to the human community, are technically feasible, and are sustainable long-term are encouraged. While there are several unanswered questions about the process, it appears that additional reviews, outside of the science review process, will address compliance with other environmental laws, budget integrity, and adherence to the Initial Comprehensive Plan.

Perhaps the most important process, scientific review will help ensure that projects are built upon the best available science. According to the RESTORE Act this “maximizes the quality, objectivity, and integrity of information, including statistical information; uses peer-reviewed and publicly available data; and clearly documents and communicates risks and uncertainties in the scientific basis for such projects.” Proposals will be reviewed by three independent external science experts; one from within the state, one from another Gulf state, and one from outside of the Gulf region. Each expert will provide their scientific review of a project, and that review will become part of the public record for the project.

While this science review is an admirable step in ensuring sound projects moving forward, it also leaves more unanswered questions. Who will serve as the reviewers? Will the experts be compensated? How will the Council ensure there is an objective measure to prioritize the most worthy investments in restoring the ecosystem? The Council anticipates that the project submission window for its members will open in August 2014, with a draft FPL published in 2015, so there is not a lot of time to figure out these important considerations. Release of the conceptual process was an important step. We hope the Council will work diligently to fill in the details in a transparent and objective manner.

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